On the edge of Cape Canaveral, the Florida promontory where Americans have been firing rockets for more than half a century, is an abandoned platform where three astronauts met with their death in a 1967 fire, while rehearsing a planned launch to the moon . It is a quiet place, where butterflies and crickets glide through the concrete, and visitors can pay tribute to the three men who died there in a memorial furnished with marble benches with their names.
It is also a reminder that space has high bets. Since the United States launched its first human astronaut Alan Shepard, in 1961 (several monkeys had preceded it), more than 20 people died during the missions or as they prepared for the launch.
The United States is approaching a new era of human spaceflight, with the launch of SpaceX astronauts from Elon Musk as part of a $ 2.6 billion contract to take them to the International Space Station. Musk, best known for his electric car company, Tesla, is one of the new wealthy entrepreneurs who are transforming the space industry.
But this second space age means that Silicon Valley must work closely with NASA and the US military. UU., Since the government seeks to ensure that their missions are safe. There have been rumors of cultural conflict and, as the pilot missions approach, NASA closely follows its business partners.
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Space travel has traditionally been dominated by the military and government agencies, in part because it is expensive and unpredictable. A visit of journalists to Cape Canaveral was organized before a planned launch of the Falcon 9 rocket that would transport a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, with scientific experiments and supplies. The takeoff is repeatedly delayed before it finally occurs early Saturday, successfully launching its cargo in orbit.
At the Cabo Cañaveral facility, where SpaceX rents Launch Complex 40, personnel wear military uniforms and security is strict. One would expect there to be ample scope for a culture shock. SpaceX made things cheaper and faster than many thought possible. How does this feel with those accustomed to doing things the old way?
Military teams will not admit rivals, at least in public. Six days before the launch of the Dragon, Brigadier General Douglas Schiess, the Air Force commander who heads the unit, says he likes the youth of private companies. "We have many really interesting young people who are in the business again."
He says that the military watches closely when preparing for launches, especially for missions that have national security badets, such as satellites, and they have maximum power to intervene if they do not believe the procedure is being followed.
"We have recruited officers who know what is supposed to happen while they prepare the rocket and the satellite, and they are supervising that. [the] Operation and say: "Wait a second, I think you were supposed to do this. Let's talk about that before continuing. "
In a hangar elsewhere in the Cape, the Human Space Flight Division of the Department of Defense is ready to rescue commercial astronauts.
The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Thompson, says that the Air Force will not play this role forever. Instead, they want to give an example, because commercial companies are still not able to do so. "NASA's job is to make sure that commercial suppliers find people who do everything possible, so that when they begin to put tourists in space, there is an infrastructure, there is knowledge, there is experience in this mission to do it in the civil side. "
One of the challenges of working with private companies is getting used to the different designs of their capsules. The SpaceX Dragon is taller and less stable than the Boeing Starliner.
In April there was concern when one of SpaceX's Crew Dragon pods, the ships that will transport astronauts into space, exploded during testing at a launch pad in Florida. At a press conference last Thursday, Hans Koenigsmann, who is in charge of the mission's guarantee for the company, said the capsule had been completely destroyed, but he hoped that the first manned flight would go ahead this year, as planned
Still trying to find out exactly what happened.
Experts are optimistic about the incident, noting that such challenges are not unusual when engineers push the boundaries of space exploration.
"That's why we tried," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the explosion. In general, SpaceX is well considered and its engineering and testing procedures are considered robust. He has hired vastly talented engineers, and his mission success rate this year is now five to five, unless a vehicle gets lost in rough seas last month. In situations like this, Musk's unusual communication habits, such as sending updates and details about launches from his own controversial Twitter account at Tesla, have been helpful, says Jennifer Lopez, a space technology expert who works with the company. NASA to encourage the subalterns. We represent groups in data science. "I think that's one of the things that you appreciate, it's his transparency," she says.
NASA has had to keep the line on one thing: drugs. He launched a cultural review of Boeing and SpaceX after Musk smoked cannabis on a podcast last year. Your marijuana smoker may have caused some initial "disbelief," Lopez says, but it has not had a significant impact on the business. In fact, the US government UU It granted the company another US $ 297 million contract to launch satellites for the Air Force in February.
There is a good reason for that: technology works. Seeing SpaceX's reusable Falcon reinforcements returning to Earth elegantly after launching a satellite into space or delivering a capsule to the International Space Station, as it did on Saturday, is a vision that defies all logic.
His brain insists that it should not be possible to land a rocket at its end, precisely in the right place, on a launch pad in the sea. But it is.
There is also a political impetus, says Eric Stallmer, president of the Federation of Commercial Space Flight, of which SpaceX is a member. Trump's current administration "really understands it," he says. "Space is an exciting field, but it is also very nationalistic, and it is a great pride for our country to be the world leader in space technology and exploration."
All this has helped make SpaceX a US $ 30 billion company, with US $ 2.4 billion in private funds and hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.
The transportation program was canceled in part due to concerns about safety. Could this new space revolution end as soon as it has begun, should a tragedy occur?
Stallmer thinks it would be less catastrophic. "I think there is a greater sense of risk in government programs," he says.
Boeing and SpaceX have contracts with NASA to send astronauts into space from the US UU For the first time since 2011. After that, both companies, as well as Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson, Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos and a handful of others, aim to start offering seats to tourists. "We'll go to Mars, we'll go back to the moon, we'll see each other doing that," says Lt. Col. Dave Mahan, part of Thompson's astronaut rescue unit.
"I keep telling my children:" You're the age that you'll be the one to do it, so I'll make sure it's safe and that you can do something great. "